What is the meaning of life?
When I was in college, I happened upon a bit of wisdom that resonated with me. It didn’t come from Plato or Confucius or any other great thinker in my Philosophy 101 class but instead from an entirely unexpected source—Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! Admittedly, I’ve only seen the film once, but some twenty-one years later, I’ve never forgotten the line: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / is just to love and be loved in return.” These words—lyrics actually—come from “Nature Boy,” an old Nat King Cole song written by proto-hippie eden ahbez and covered by David Bowie on the film’s soundtrack. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time; I just felt like I had discovered a higher truth.
After all, true romance is a paradox. It happens every day, yet it seems so impossible when you don’t have it—or never had it—in your life. Honestly, I can’t think of any better feeling in this world than to love another human being with all your heart and to know—to really know—that they love you too. Mutual romantic love can be inspirational, rejuvenating, and even empowering. Or as my dad might have said: it can make you feel ten-feet tall and bulletproof.
To my surprise, that same line from Moulin Rouge! popped into my head while watching Park Chan-wook’s surprisingly romantic neo-noir, Decision to Leave. However, the film’s onscreen couple don’t exactly get to enjoy the full benefits of falling in love. For starters, the film asks, what if that mutual, revitalizing love is also forbidden, dangerous, or even doomed? Sure, such perils might amplify the attraction, but in the end, won’t it still lead the couple on a path of mutual destruction? Or, could one of the romantic partners take a cue from the film’s seemingly ho-hum title and make a conscious “decision to leave” before everything goes to hell?
These are just a few of the questions lurking far beneath the surface of this mesmerizing film. While Decision to Leave does resemble a classic film noir, there’s also something about it that feels very different, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on—a suspicion that took a second viewing for me to confirm. From a genre standpoint, Park’s film may come to us in the guise of a detective story, a police procedural, and even a quasi-erotic thriller, but at its heart, Decision to Leave is really a romantic comedy, albeit of the darkest kind.
The movie begins in medias res by introducing us to Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a Busan homicide detective shooting targets at an indoor gun range. Although not initially apparent, a sly double irony exists in this otherwise unremarkable scene. First, we quickly learn that Hae-joon has been “missing the target” in a professional sense by failing to track down the prime suspects in an unsolved murder case. The second irony only came to me with considerable reflection. When you shoot at a target, what do you aim for? The head or the heart. Without giving too much away, the opening conceit of a gun range serves as a delicious bit of ironic foreshadowing. Oh, and at the risk of sounding like Columbo, there’s just one more thing: Hae-joon appears to have no problem hitting the bullseye, but then again, neither does Cupid.
On the surface, Hae-joon is a cop cliché of the highest order—the consummate by-the-book detective who bristles at any violation of standard protocol. Despite being a stickler for the rules, Hae-joon hasn’t exactly mastered a healthy work-life balance. Early on, we discover he suffers from insomnia and only sees his wife on the weekends. She lives in Ipo, a sleepy seaside town a few hours away, while he keeps a crash pad in Busan during the weekdays. With the stress of yet another unsolved case hanging over him, it’s clear that something’s gotta give—his job, his marriage, or perhaps even his life.
Soon enough, a second, unrelated homicide investigation ensues when a sixty-year-old hiker dies in a fall. When Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the man’s beautiful, much younger Chinese widow, comes to identify the body at the morgue, the detective calls her in for questioning at the police station. Although nothing about Seo-rae is overtly sinister, she doesn’t seem particularly surprised by her husband’s demise—or even saddened by it. Even worse, during her back-and-forth with Hae-joon, she lets slip an insensitive turn of phrase and even laughs. Neither of these amount to egregious sins, but it’s hardly the behavior of a grieving widow.
When Seo-rae is let go, Hae-joon tracks his target’s every move from the safety of his car. Unsurprisingly, he becomes obsessed. In the process of stalking her, the predator falls for his prey.
Or is he the prey?
Seo-rae doesn’t seem much like a predator at all. Through Hae-joon’s investigation, she’s revealed as a warm and dutiful caregiver for the disabled elderly, a generous feeder of the neighborhood stray cat, and—in the most rom-com moment of all—a woman who spends her free evenings falling asleep to teary Korean dramas while eating from a tub of ice cream. Nothing about Seo-rae’s day-to-day activities screams femme fatale.
What follows is not exactly what you’d call a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. I say “not exactly” because of how Park Chan-wook plays with the stylistic conventions of film noir. What you know about these types of movies—through personal enjoyment, careful study, or cultural osmosis—will possibly affect how you perceive every scene between the two characters. In fact, it could very well blind you to the realization that you’re actually watching a twisted romantic comedy. The clues are all there, but our attention is focused on the red herrings.
Many critics have mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a point of reference, and it is indeed a favorite of Park Chan-wook’s. Although not an overt homage to the Master of Suspense, Park’s film shares with Vertigo themes of voyeurism and obsession. Hae-joon is a constant watcher, so much so that he uses Visine to cope with the eyestrain. But there are also plenty of moments when the viewer is watching him, albeit from the strangest of angles: from behind a smartphone screen, via the point of view of a dead fish, and even through the eyes of a dead man. Like Jimmy Stewart’s acrophobic detective in Vertigo, Hae-joon is compromised by an ailment—insomnia—that might affect his view of the case and of Seo-rae.
For example, there are scenes in which Hae-joon watches Seo-rae from afar but will then suddenly appear in the same room with her, always in close proximity. While we can read these scenes as literalizations of Hae-joon’s desires, the film’s disregard for the rules of time and space could also be a commentary on the intrusive nature of voyeurism itself, as the detective violates her privacy day and night. These scenes also add a certain daydreamy quality to the film. Since we know that Hae-joon is a man starved of sleep, the imaginative leap of placing himself beside her pushes the audience to ask: to what degree are we crossing over from reality to fantasy? By blurring the line that separates waking life and dreams, Decision to Leave throws into question whether you can trust anything that you are seeing.
Another stylistic choice that Park makes is actually a common genre convention—the reconstruction of the crime. Detective films and television shows, especially those with genius protagonists like Sherlock Holmes, often have flashback sequences where the investigator reconstructs the crime and the viewer sees exactly how it happened. Decision to Leave contains a version of this traditional sequence when our protagonist returns to the site of the hiker’s death. While trying to re-enact the crime, he imagines Seo-rae as the culprit, with the mise en scène constructed in a way that places the two characters in the same geographical space, despite the temporal difference. This is the “aha!” moment of any detective film, but due to Hae-joon’s propensity to imagine himself elsewhere, there was still—at least for me—a shred of doubt about whether what I was seeing was a genuine glimpse into the past, or instead a misguided deduction on the part of our hero.
The genius of both Park Chan-wook’s design and Tang Wei’s performance is that, taken together, they made me question if I could trust my own eyes. Seeing is believing, after all. Perhaps I too had fallen for Seo-rae and simply didn’t want the detective’s conclusions to be true. My reaction as a viewer called to mind a famous moment in a different Hitchcock movie—Psycho. Early in the film, motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) disposes of a dead body by putting it in the trunk of a car and pushing it into the swamp near his house. The vehicle starts to sink—and then stops. It’s a moment of panic not only for Norman but for the viewer. For a split second, the audience’s sympathies transfer from an innocent dead woman to the man covering up the crime, making them a veritable accomplice to murder. While Hitchcock uses cinematic sleight of hand to accomplish this effect, Park utilizes the mechanics of the romantic comedy to build our sympathies for Seo-rae. As Hae-joon’s gaze becomes our own, we become less concerned with the whodunit aspect of the film than we are with the “will they do it?”
Will they or won’t they fall in love?
If you strip away all the noir trappings, Decision to Leave is about a man quietly, then wholeheartedly, falling in love and wondering whether his feelings are reciprocated. From the very beginning, Park Chan-wook highlights Hae-joon’s instant and undeniable attraction to Seo-rae. Yes, he’s drawn to her as the prime suspect, but he’s also head over heels for her.
Seo-rae’s visit to the morgue and her subsequent trip to the police station play out like an extended, unconventional meet-cute in a straight-ahead romantic comedy. Consider the moment when Seo-rae arrives to identify her husband’s body. The way the scene is shot prevents the viewer from seeing her face—we only witness Hae-joon’s stunned reaction. Upon first viewing, one might assume that he is merely struck by the incongruity of a beautiful younger woman being married to such a homely old man. With the benefit of a second viewing, however, Hae-joon’s palpably comedic reaction to Seo-rae’s appearance seems more like a rom-com staple: a man with a strong case of love at first sight.
In romantic comedies, meet-cutes are all about having the good-looking leads bump into each other in a comical, coincidental, or altogether awkward way. Is there a more unusual or humorous circumstance than meeting in a morgue and then moving the conversation to a police interrogation room? Could there be a couple more mismatched at the outset than a homicide detective and a murder suspect? Boy, what a funny story they’ll tell their kids someday! —that is, if either of them survive the movie.
Because Decision to Leave takes many of its cues from romantic comedy, the subsequent love affair is remarkably chaste. There is really only one sex scene—a perfunctory, distracted lovemaking session between a husband and wife that has all the heat of a Michigan winter. While Hae-joon and Seo-rae may fall into an intimate relationship, nothing suggests they are actually having sex, even offscreen. If anything, we’re waiting to see if they will at least kiss. The closest hint of a sex scene occurs when one character provocatively removes a belt. Of course, there is sensuality in the movie, but not in the overtly sexual way we have come to expect from contemporary examples of noir.
Instead, sensuality comes in a different form of intimacy. The first real example occurs when Seo-rae is called back for DNA testing and is subjected to a more formal line of questioning inside a police interrogation room. Now, a scene such as this is nothing new. Plenty of stock images are likely to come to mind—a solitary light bulb illuminating an otherwise dark room, hard-boiled cops asking tough questions, suspects sweating profusely as they confess their guilt. Cliche or not, the best interrogation scenes are often intense, riveting, and sometimes even terrifying. The one in Decision to Leave, however, seems more like an amazing first date.
After questioning Seo-rae for presumably hours, Hae-joon decides to order dinner for the two of them. But the meal isn’t McDonald’s takeout. What arrives is a gorgeous sushi set for two from an obviously high-end restaurant. Their interactions during this impromptu “date” are not flirtatious; the only trace of eroticism is a kind of food pornography, as the nigiri is filmed provocatively, each piece glistening under the lights.
Of course, the fact that Hae-joon springs for such a meal is a tell in itself, especially in light of how he aggressively warned his younger partner not to eat an expensive lunch while on the job. There’s some amusing blowback as a result, but what happens between Hae-joon and Seo-rae after the feast is more revealing—both detective and suspect proceed to clean the table together with the grace of a pair of figure skaters. Despite being pitted against each other, this mismatched duo appears eerily in sync. It’s a scene of domestic intimacy, a kind that doesn’t exist between Hae-joon and his wife or presumably between Seo-rae and her now-dead husband.
In true romantic comedy fashion, little details about Hae-joon’s subsequent behavior reveal that he is totally smitten with Seo-rae. He takes a sudden interest in a Korean drama that she watches, attempts to learn her native tongue, listens to the music that she likes, and even orders the same brand of whiskey he saw inside her home. Whether it’s tracking the two suspects in the unsolved murder case or his professional yet romantic pursuit of Seo-rae, Hae-Joon is obviously a man who loves the thrill of the chase.
Which raises a significant question: is Seo-rae chasing him as well? There’s a scene early in the film that suggests the attraction is mutual. Alerted to the whereabouts of a suspect, Hae-joon cuts short his interrogation of Seo-rae. When she overhears where he is heading, she inputs the address in her cell phone and follows him by car. Does she hope to “coincidentally” bump into him outside of work? Does she want to continue their interrupted “date”? Or does she—as the femme fatale—see his attraction to her as an opportunity to manipulate him? Once again, noir tropes influence our perception of what might be happening.
In romantic comedies, if one or both of the leads has a boyfriend or a girlfriend (rarely a spouse), then that person is either a cad or a shrew, as the audience needs to actively root for the would-be couple, not feel guilty about their romance. It’s no surprise then that the spouses of our main characters are depicted as veritable antagonists: Seo-rae’s husband Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok) appears to have been an abuser, and Hae-joon’s wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) teeters toward the stereotypical nagging wife. However, while Seo-rae’s husband is dead and confined to the realm of memory and speculation, Hae-joon’s wife is a living, breathing character we can judge—or misjudge—for ourselves.
Initially, she comes across as the overly concerned wife, constantly wanting to make sure that she and her husband are still okay and that the distance between them is merely physical. Performance-wise, pop star-turned-actress Lee Jung-hyun brings a dull banality to her character, which comes in stark contrast with both her reputation as“The Techno Queen” of Korean pop music and her more fearsome role in the Train to Busan sequel, Peninsula (2020). Whether it’s henpecking her husband about smoking, offering up dubious home remedies to cure his various ills, or regaling him with tiresome stories about her co-worker June (itself a clue hidden in plain sight), the otherwise soft-spoken character is somehow incredibly annoying, despite her heart so clearly being in the right place.
Towards the end of the film, Jung-an embodies the shrew stereotype, as she makes her husband squirm at a public fish market when she doles out withering comments under a smiling mask of politeness. Based on her behavior, it’s easy to see why Hae-joon is unhappy. At this point in the narrative, the audience’s sympathies may be entirely with him. However, even with the film pulling us in this direction, it’s not so difficult to understand why Jung-an herself might be deeply dissatisfied with her policeman husband.
The uncomfortable scene at the fish market seems an apt metaphor for the couple’s marriage. They’re both cold fish. As a husband, Hae-joon is similarly nice and soft spoken, but he’s also checked out, often staring at his phone, the TV, or off into nothingness. He tells his wife nothing of value when they meet on the weekends and what he does reveal to her about his work is a lie to conceal Seo-rae’s existence. Whatever Jung-an’s faults, at least she’s making an effort to communicate. Early on, the film establishes why she might be trying so hard to save both her husband and her marriage. Jung-an doesn’t live in Ipo just because she prefers it to the city; she works as a top safety officer at her town’s nuclear power plant. Keeping that detail in mind, it seems that Jung-an’s work life and home life have blurred. Although the meltdown of her marriage seems imminent, she’s still trying to take preventative measures before it’s too late. However, if you unknowingly surrender to the conventions of a romantic comedy, she comes across instead as an obstacle to our protagonist’s chance for real happiness.
In addition, if we look at the film not through the lens of noir but through the lens of a rom-com, we may better understand how Decision to Leave is able to explore the complexities of language and the difficulties of communication in a way that has less to do with searching for clues to a crime than clues to one’s true feelings. Over the course of the film, Seo-rae’s Korean-speaking skills are shown to be sometimes imperfect, other times overly formal, and still other times wholly insufficient, thus requiring the use of an app to translate her words from Mandarin. In scene after scene, Hae-joon searches her words for any clue that she is indeed the murderer. But things don’t always translate correctly; sometimes what seems suspicious on the outset has a wholly innocent explanation. And yet, there is another way to read these scenes. Despite the murder-mystery plot, it wasn’t lost on me that our detective appears to be hanging on Seo-rae’s every word like a man in love, waiting for the Freudian slip that will reveal all—not just her potential guilt but perhaps her true feelings for him. Their mutual (mis)interpretation of each other is a rom-com trope in and of itself.
The visual grammar of romantic comedies comes into play full force after Seo-rae is cleared of all charges, as the “cutesiness” of her burgeoning relationship with Hae-joon takes center stage. For this stretch of the film, the two of them fall into an oddly domestic coupling, one emanating a warmth that their respective marriages clearly lack(ed). Consider the subsequent events that transpire: 1) Hae-joon prepares a home-cooked meal for Seo-rae at his Busan apartment, 2) he takes her on a date to a Buddhist temple where they share a Chapstick and an umbrella (a Korean drama staple), 3) she helps him crack the unsolved case that began the film by locating the missing suspect, and 4) she ostensibly cures his insomnia with a special breathing technique. Although all of these moments happen under the pall of noir, I can imagine a clever YouTuber making a supercut of these scenes for a faux upbeat trailer. Slap Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m into Something Good” a la The Naked Gun over the footage, and you’ve got yourself a charming “falling in love” montage.
In fact, one of the most intimate scenes in the film comes directly from that aforementioned “montage.” The actual consummation of their relationship is not a scene of Hae-joon and Seo-rae sleeping together but instead Hae-joon actually being able to fall asleep with her assistance. The love affair in Decision to Leave hinges on a fundamental truth—the importance of a good night’s sleep. With that one act of kindness, Seo-rae has given Hae-joon everything he’s ever needed and more. In some ways, it’s the grandest romantic gesture of all.
* * *
To be clear, I am not saying that Decision to Leave isn’t a neo-noir, a thriller, or a detective story. It is still all of those things. But the film boasts the most compelling meet-cute in any romantic comedy I’ve seen in at least the last twenty years. Further, the film’s conflict comes straight out of a rom-com, as these films tend to feature a misunderstanding or a misdeed that breaks the happy couple-to-be apart, at least temporarily. Decision to Leave boasts that convention too, except it involves the not-so-small matter of a possible murder. In addition, the film’s final act is, in its own way, all about a character desperately trying to see and perhaps even win back the person that they love most in this world. Heck, the final sequence of the film is one character racing after the other, as if the latter were about to catch a plane for parts unknown. So even with the genre trappings of a murder-mystery, even with the specter of death floating over the proceedings, and even with an ending that most would consider tragic, perhaps even cruel, I still say Decision to Leave is a romantic comedy.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it explores the possibility of burying your feelings and leaving your love behind forever. The movie answers this question in a way that is true to its title, although perhaps it comes too late and at too great a toll. Ultimately, this is a noir romantic comedy that can’t have a happily ever after—for anybody.
Even so, maybe there is one last glimmer of rom-com style happiness in Decision to Leave. Upon a second viewing, I was struck by one of the film’s penultimate moments, where the camera focuses on a close-up of Hae-joon. Of all the emotions his character could and probably does feel in that moment, his face reveals something that I least expected—a feeling of momentary elation. Of course, this reaction seems totally incongruous with his circumstances. Again, without giving away the specifics, the man is in the process of losing what he holds dear, and even in a best-case scenario, it’s doubtful that Hae-joon will be living a life of quiet longing like some brooding Wong Kar-wai protagonist. After the credits roll, there will be incalculable consequences.
So where does this exhilarating feeling come from? I suspect this fleeting epiphany may originate from the lyrics I quoted at the beginning of this essay. In the end, after all he has experienced, Hae-joon is momentarily comforted by the knowledge that, yes, the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return—but at what cost?